Running the World's Toughest Marathon — And Into a Pandemic
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Despite being canceled during a pandemic, the world's toughest marathon still holds lessons of resiliency amid hardship.
By Nick Fouriezos
In November of 2019, OZY reporter Nick Fouriezos ran his first marathon, the Athens Authentic Marathon, in Greece. With the marathon canceled in 2020, the Greek American reflects on his journey to explore his cultural roots and what lessons the country has to offer amid a tragic global pandemic.
A year ago, I was chasing Pheidippides. Or, at least, the legend of him. Me, and thousands of others. We had begun in that ancient town of Marathon and passed the tomb of the Athenian soldiers. The unseasonably warm November sun was cooled only by the occasional cloud, and we were now climbing — up, up, up, 13 miles straight uphill. That torturous climb had haunted my months of training, and it is a major reason why many runners know the Athens race to be the toughest major marathon in the world.
It was also my first marathon. And I was running it in the land of my ancestors.
I am a 28-year-old Greek American, whose family immigrated first to Canada four generations ago. My heritage was primarily passed on in two ways. First, the cooking, in which my YiaYias and my KiKis gathered each night to cook spanakopita and moussaka. And second, in the gambling: The Greek men and women huddled over cards playing blackjack. No matter how old you were, whether you were my 95-year-old Pro YiaYia or me, just a 5-year-old Nikos, you had to gamble something: five cents, a dime, a quarter.
My last name, Fouriezos — which my dad used to say meant “fighting family” because of how awful my four siblings and I argued — actually stems from the Greek word “Φούρια,” pronounced similarly to (and likely inspiring) the English word “fury.” The name is fitting: We are from the Peloponnese, known for its blood feuds and family squabbles. While America was fighting its Civil War in the mid-19th century, my ancestor was fighting his own battle with his brother — divorcing himself from his old family and giving us this new last name.
Despite our Greek heritage, I had never actually been to Greece until my YiaYia took us on a cruise in the summer of 2018. But while I enjoyed seeing Athens and the islands, from Crete to Santorini, the experience left me only hungry for more. After all, the cruise hadn’t allowed us to spend a single night on land, and none of the stops included the land of my ancestors, the villages of Pakia, in Molai, and Kyparissi, that gorgeous seaside town tucked into a mountainous valley of pines and olive trees. Sitting at my table on New Year’s Day of 2019, I set a resolution — to run my first marathon, a dream I had held for years, and to do it in the Marathon while visiting my ancestral lands for the first time.
And so I trained for a year, listening to Greek history tapes while racing through the streets of Washington, D.C., every thud of my feet bringing me closer to my roots. My mom signed up to run the marathon with me, while my siblings also decided they would fly to Athens to cheer me on. We studied Greek, although if I am honest, I did not study as hard as I should have. Still, the alphabet became familiar to my lips, the letters memorized by my pen. My goal became clearer too: I wanted to finish the race in under five hours, and I wanted to do so without stopping to walk even once.
Finally, the week of November 10 came. I was nervous: I had only slept six hours total the two nights before because of jet lag. My knee was aching after suffering an injury two weeks before. When the starting gun went off, I lurched forward — and realized just a few miles in that I was limping. Somehow, despite the pain, I began to feel something else. I passed the people of Greece all around me, their smiles and cheers waving me on, handing out olive branches and shouting “Bravo!” I reached that terrible stretch, the 13 miles uphill, but amazingly felt my spirit lifted.
I actually ran one of my best times in the middle of that climb as I conquered each fire-scorched hill, one by one. Almost halfway through, I saw a British runner my age shoving a full piece of Galaktoboureko into his mouth. When he saw me shaking my head and laughing, he smiled and offered me the rest of it — and I ate it, licking the sweet custard off my fingers greedily. Runners usually hit a wall at mile 20, but I was so excited to be entering the final downhill stretch to Athens that I barely felt it.
Knowing my family was waiting for me in the Olympic stadium, I inched myself through the final, delirious two miles, raising my hands in victory as I crossed the finish line. I had accomplished my goal: I didn’t stop once, and finished with a 4:48 time. Later that week, I saw Kyparissi for the first time and visited Pakia. There, we visited the local church — and were shocked when we accidentally found, inscribed on its walls, my great-grandfather’s name, which is also my own: Nicholas Fouriezos.
The Athens marathon is not particularly beautiful. It is 26.2 miles of hardship, along a highway far from the ocean and the dramatic landscapes Greece is known for. Yet it’s that very difficulty that makes it, truly, the “Authentic.” Despite its beauty, Greece is an incredibly harsh environment — of rocky terrain, treacherous coasts, at times nonarable land. Our shared Greek ancestors battled to survive yet were able to create one of the most globally enduring cultures in human history.
The marathon may have been canceled this year, as 2020 has brought unimaginable challenges — the shutdowns amid the pandemic, which has led to nearly 1.5 million deaths worldwide, and the economic recession that has followed, with a tragic toll on many of us and our global neighbors. But even without us running it, the marathon remains alive as a reminder of the incredible Greek spirit and the challenges our culture has overcome. And like Pheidippides, who raced to Athens to tell his compatriots of their unlikely win against Persian invaders, we will also finish this race, declaring victory against all odds.